15th March 2020
Design artist Morag Myerscough lives a life drenched in colour, no matter how grey the skies outside her London front door.
Her bold, geometric patterns in rich reds, blues, yellows and pinks have brought light and life to communities around the world, illuminating her belief that public art is transformative and works for the public good.
She is credited with being the first artist to take colour to the streets of London, with her wildly inventive installations encouraging people to sit, walk, think or simply immerse themselves in the joy they are designed to bring. Her work brings rainbows to dull corners, fuelling a sense of belonging and changing people’s perceptions.
Myerscough’s commissions have included building pavilions at festivals and in the heart of cities, bringing warmth to office spaces and cafes, and using colour in schools and hospitals to change the lives of children. Her art has stood throughout Britain and in the United States, in Sweden and South Africa, Mexico and Hong Kong. Now, her next stop is Fremantle, where the five-storey facade of the great grey Queensgate carpark is succumbing without complaint to her skill.
For the past two weeks, a handful of local artists have been painting her vision onto the concrete, and Myerscough plans to be in the port city this week to add the finishing touches. It will be her first permanent project in Australia.
The towering artwork will be a beacon for Sirona Capital’s $220 million food, dining and retail project FOMO, which is at the heart of the redevelopment of Kings Square, and it is this spirit of rejuvenation that attracted Myerscough to the project — that and Fremantle’s history as a haven for migrants.
“I have elements of French, German and Scots in me,” she tells STM. “It was that sense that this was a place that offered a new start, that people were connected to something.”
Myerscough, who grew up in Holloway, a migratory area of London, was named a Royal Designer for Industry in 2017, an accolade recognised as the highest honour a UK designer can achieve, but she has often seen herself as an outsider, particularly at art school, and it is building a sense of belonging that drives her.
Nowhere is that more apparent than in her home city, where the multi-award-winning designer has brightened countless shadows with her signature colour. She has helped transform the historic Battersea Power Station into a cultural hub, built a vivid cafe topped with plants to improve the wellbeing of office workers in Broadgate, created a striking stage for a new gathering place in an unused city garden and dazzled residents with a 97m-long wall installation at the Barbican Centre.
The temporary installation The Temple of Agape, commissioned by the Southbank Centre for its Festival of Love, is among her most well-known works.
Where she can, Myerscough works closely with local communities, giving them a sense of ownership rather than bringing in her own team.
In Aberdeen, Scotland, last year she taught dozens of people how to paint her deeply personal installation, Love At First Sight, a homage to the city where her father and mother, who had recently died, met.
“People living together, coming together, being together. It is a symbol of strength and I hope it resonates with people.”
She says the need for inclusion is more important now than ever. “We are going back to being very tribal, people are going back to what makes them feel comfortable, the sense that you are stronger in divided places.
“Local is good but it is important to also see the bigger picture. The coronavirus is dividing people as countries get closed off, global warming is dividing people.”
Myerscough has played around with the word Together for some time, tossing it from hand to hand and throwing it in the air. Now, it has caught fast for the Queensgate project and will be writ large along the carpark in her trademark vivid colours. Images of the sun will be used to symbolise joy, growth and the power of the natural world.
She sees her work as a series of layers — some may choose to think about the words, others simply respond to the big, bold colours. “I did a piece in a fairly grim area of London and a woman said to me, ‘Wow, it’s wonderful to see the colour. You made me very happy’.
“People can respond to my art exactly how they want.”
Some of her favourite projects have been in schools and hospitals, where art and colour can be very powerful in changing moods.
She consulted with clinicians, patients and their families on her landmark project rejuvenating bedrooms at the Sheffield Children’s Hospital in England, overcoming some initial official resistance to her bold geometric shapes. Quieter colours were used for children with autism.
“You see the positive effect and it is incredibly rewarding,” she says.
Working in the street is also exciting and Myerscough agrees that public projects are a way for everybody to get involved in art.
“Some people don’t go into galleries because they cost money or they think they are not knowledgable enough,” she says.
“This art is for everybody. You can have a drink, have a chat when you are looking at it.”
But her days of using spray paint are over. “I began to feel ill,” she says. “And I worry about those who use them.” Now, her paints are water-based and come from a tin.
Budget constraints and distance — and age, she laughs — limit the time Myerscough can commit to the construction of her overseas projects. “I simply can’t do it all myself,” she says.
For the FOMO installation, she has worked closely with local artist Andrew Frazer, who is the founder and creative director of design agency Six Two Three Zero and who has brought a team together that includes Sam Bloor and brothers Luke and Sean O’Donohoe.
Once Myerscough agreed to take on the project, she was given architects’ drawings of the carpark, details of its elevations and how it sat on the street.
Armed with her knowledge of Fremantle, she then provided intricate details of the patterns she wanted and, most importantly, the colours she wanted. She chose them from Australian Dulux colour swatches, which she says are a bit different to what she gets in Britain.
“The colours look different because the light is different,” she says. “We test and test what we have chosen to make sure it is going to work in the Fremantle light.
“I also work in a smaller scale, so we need to make sure the colour is going to work on a big fragmented carpark. That’s the scary part.”
When I speak to Frazer, he is more than 10m up in the air but he assures me it is safe to talk.
He says he is humbled to be part of such an ambitious project and to bring Myerscough’s vision to life. He is strongly attracted to her belief that public art can improve communities.
For the moment, though, he has a huge artistic and mathematical puzzle to piece together, and he is grateful for Sean O’Donohoe’s technical skills as a carpenter.
Using a number of cranes, Frazer and his team will at times work up to five storeys above the ground and across an area spanning more than 2000sqm. They first prime the facade’s concrete surface to ensure that Myerscough’s colours will pop and then work in bite-sized pieces, using different approaches to bring the artwork to life — chalk to create the circular elements and a custom-made jig for the geometric shapes. The colour is filled in as they go along — black and white and joyous yellow, orange and pink.
Despite working face to facade on such a big structure, Frazer says there is no need to step away to gain a wider perspective of their work, they simply put their trust in their measurements.
He uses FaceTime to keep in contact with Myerscough.
“She is an incredible woman who has had a huge influence on art and design,” Frazer says.
“I love her approach and her conviction.”
Myerscough, for her part, doesn’t expect to be surprised when she sees her work in person.
“I already understand what I am going to see,” she says. “I have been in conversation with them, I have looked up things, it will be what I imagine in my head.”
What she is looking forward to is coming to the place she has helped transform, breathing the air, seeing the light and understanding what makes the community tick.
“I love coming to a place,” she says, “looking at it, seeing it and understanding it. I will be like a child, like a sponge, soaking it all up.”